The Literary Kitchen’s Ariel Gore Talks to Narrow River, Wide Sky Author Jenny Forrester about Writing through What Haunts UsOn the Colorado Plateau between slot canyons and rattlesnakes, Jenny Forrester grew up with her mother and brother in a single-wide trailer proudly displaying an American flag… The lyrical Western memoir she’s created from her memories has been called “an unsentimental portrait of small-town Colorado, a formative environment that both oppressed her and shaped her identity.” Jenny Forrester knows how to write about place. Forward Reviews says, “Forrester doesn’t gloss over the difficult parts of her life, but rather tells stories of how that adversity formed a stronger individual.” Jenny Forrester knows how not to gloss things over. Many Literary Kitchen writers know Jenny as a student here, as the quiet force behind Portland’s Unchaste Readers Series—and we’ll soon know her as a teacher, too. Jenny Forrester is breaking ground. How long did it take you to write Narrow River, Wide Sky? Twenty years to the final draft before publication.
Was there anything in taking that time that, in hindsight, feels particularly valuable?
The most valuable part really does seem to be all those years – I had to live and learn and it all took all that time. I wish it hadn’t.
The notion of what a memoir can be has changed so much in recent years—is still changing. What are your thoughts on memoir versus fiction in terms of your own creative expression and the stories you want to tell?
Fictionalizing is kind of what memory does. I mean, I’m not a neuroscientist or anything, but memory is a tricky thing. Even vision is tricky.
Stories are tricky, so if we say it’s all fiction, maybe we’re more honest, but I also know the patriarchy loves for us not to believe our memories, not to believe our stories.
I want to tell stories that matter, that could speak to power, that could tear down big men and bring up little women or show the truth that those men aren’t big and those women aren’t little and maybe gender is a fallacy, but patriarchy wants it not to be so it all seems to matter still. There needs to be a certain amount of fiction involved to topple them and bring ourselves and others up. So I trust memory, too. I trust that putting memory to the page matters. So mote it be.
As a small-town girl who has lived in the city for much of your life now, and as someone who grew up in conservative country but writes from a progressive, feminist perspective, what do you see as your unique insight into the multi-layered America we’re living in?
I love this question. I’m always thinking of myself as a small-town girl, as someone who’s been, and been among, the conservative mindset. It never feels like I’m safely progressive, fully feminist—the edge is always so close. I guess that’s unique—that I stand on the precipice and never really see things are changing for Them even though I’m part of a different We now. If that makes sense.
I mean, How did this Trump thing happen?
Maybe we don’t progress. We learn, we grow. To go back to the source of my understandings of things—the devil is always whispering and hissing. He never ceases to speak in that slithering way. He never rests.
One really interesting thing you do from a craft perspective in Narrow River, Wide Sky is the way that you move through time. Did you outline those movements and transitions or do you work more intuitively?
I can’t outline. That might be helpful, but I draw a lot—maps and circles and pies. I learned that from you. The pie thing. Moving through time is like this—sometimes we’re flying along having fun but the horrors are time-slowing.
I gave more words to the slow movements and fewer when I wanted to speed it up—like running. When you sprint, you take many more steps. When you want to cover distance, you stretch out those strides— fewer steps between mesas and mountains to close up the distance.
Kirkus calls the book, “A modest, thoughtful memoir that traces hard-won liberation from the past.” How important is liberation from the past? Do you think it’s possible?
I don’t know. Maybe we’re so much a part of the past and the steps we’ve already taken—we keep looking back to see what’s chasing us because it does seem something always is.
We can grow, we can change, we can move and all, but we live where our imprisonments happened or where the imprisoners live, if you will make allowances for that metaphor.
The places that trapped us, the places we left and we keep looking back like, seriously, did you SEE that? That’s how it is for me. Maybe other people can move on without looking back. I’m not them. I just know shapeshifting is temporary. Mostly, we maintain the forms we were born to.
So do you think you’re more or less haunted by the past for writing about it?
I used to believe there was some true answer, some redemptive piece of information I could find. Now, though. I do feel less haunted by the things I wrote about. But there are so many things I didn’t include so I am still working on those hauntings. I’m haunted by so much. I suppose we all are. I’m for facing ghosts. I’m for seeking solace. I’m for seeking freedom. I’ll continue.
Jenny Forrester’s debut memoir Narrow River, Wide Sky (Hawthorne Books, 2017) is available wherever books are sold.